A “martial arts ballet” employing a troupe of champion competitors. A “living comic book” depicting a 17th-century legend about the destruction of the Shaolin Temple and the genesis of the Drunken Fist fighting style. An “action-adventure music/theater fable” set to a jazz score and rife with slapstick comedy. These advance descriptions of Voice of the Dragon make it sound like an impossible gallimaufry of Chinese opera, kung fu competition, and improvisation. Impossible, I suppose, for anyone besides Fred Ho. The fire-breathing baritone saxist and composer has already written an opera (Warrior Sisters), composed two albums’ worth of program music based on the epic Chinese folk myth Journey to the West, and established himself as the most politically outspoken member of the Asian-American jazz community. The theatricality of Ho’s past projects has earned him comparisons to Sun Ra, and no other jazzman since Charles Mingus has transmuted rage against the machinery of racism and hypocrisy into music as powerful as Ho’s “Black Revolutionary Love Is Forever” and “Underground Railroad to My Heart.” His compositions find a meeting point between the lilting textures of traditional Chinese music and the ensemble fragmentation of the AACM; his fierce rhythms and neon voicings enliven even conventional instrumentation and his solos race from pentatonic postbop to pantonal squeals. To perform the score for this production (music released in 2001 on Ho’s Innova album Once Upon a Time in Chinese America), Ho leads a sextet featuring bari, tenor, and alto saxes, along with vibes, marimba, and percussion; with them he manages to evoke both the exotic pomp of imperial Beijing and the rippling cool of a SoHo nightclub. Friday, March 28, 8 PM, Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State; 312-443-1130 or 312-902-1500.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jason Jem.